The Woman Who Could Save The NFL (Or At Least The 2011 NFL Season)


Tomorrow, the future of the Kansas City Chiefs (and of every other NFL franchise) will be placed in the hands of the Honorable Susan Nelson, a U.S. District Court Judge in St. Paul, Minnesota, who will preside over an injunction hearing that could end the lockout. We know that the players (as represented by Mike Vrabel and nine other plaintiffs who were not arrested this week) will argue that the owners are violating America’s antitrust laws. We know that the owners will respond that the players are violating labor laws and have no compelling case. And we know that the owners are evil.

But just how much do we know about Judge Nelson? After all, her ruling, which could come within a week, could determine whether the Chiefs and everyone else go back to work (while appeals and court battles continue) or whether we move closer to losing some or all of next season. “I don’t think we can predict,” sports law expert and dean of Indiana University Law School Gary R. Roberts told the Washington Post. “With an unknown judge and novel issues, there’s no way of knowing.”

So how can we get a better sense of which way Judge Nelson will decide? One means of going about this would be to embark on a meticulous study of her judicial record, with a comprehensive ruling-by-ruling analysis of every case with any bearing on the issue at hand. For example, I’ve read that, as a lawyer, she represented plaintiffs in class actions against powerful corporate interests, including the tobacco industry. It might be interesting to see whether this is indeed part of Judge Nelson’s larger, overall perspective on labor jurisprudence that could significantly influence her to take the side of the players against the powerful corporate interest of the NFL.

Well, that would be a great idea. But AA already has one attorney* on staff, and it ain’t me.

*Go for it, Jeremy.

No, my exhaustive research of Judge Susan Nelson and her career is pretty much limited to what I’m able to find online during commercial breaks in the course of the NCAA basketball national championship game. In other words, this is what I’ve learned so far from her page on Wikipedia:

> Judge Susan Richard Nelson was born in 1952 in Buffalo, New York.

This is good. This means she would have been a teenager during the Bills’ AFL glory days, and maybe continued to absorb some of the us-against-the-world attitude embodied by a team best known for O.J. Simpson and losing four consecutive Super Bowls.

> She graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio.

Okay, not as encouraging, given Oberlin’s less-than-legendary football tradition as a middling team in Division III’s North Coast Athletic Conference. (Yes, I had just enough time to click over to their official athletic site.) It appears the team name is the Yeomen, so I won’t question their effort. All the same, being at a school where students played football for the love of the game and/or a scholarship to a respected liberal arts college isn’t going to do much to ally Judge Nelson with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or, for that matter, Mike Vrabel.* As far as I can tell, the Oberlin Yeomen have never sent a player to the NFL. However, the current starting quarterback, a sophomore named Josh Mandel, was just named to the Jewish Sports Review All-America team. As an American Jew who reviews sports, I am somewhat ashamed to have never heard of this publication.

*Seriously? Eight beers?

> She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1978.

Unlike Oberlin, Pitt can claim dozens and dozens of NFL players as alumni (though not necessarily of the law school), including several Hall of Famers—Tony Dorsett was on campus at the same time as Judge Nelson. More importantly, she was in Pittsburgh at the height of the Steel Curtain dynasty, an era when players became legends and ownership took a quiet backseat (it was the “Immaculate Reception,” not the “Lucrative Transaction”). On the other hand, an understandable fondness for the Rooney Family could sway her toward the owners’ camp, though likely not at the expense of a season.

> While in law school, she worked as a bank teller, waitress, and camp counselor.

Well, this is just perfect. As a once working stiff, Judge Nelson must completely sympathize with the plight of the lowly NFL player who’s next missed tackle or dropped pass could jeopardize everything (except his $3-million signing bonus). Okay, at least as a former camp counselor she understands outdoor physical activity, and as a bank teller she got used to handling money for people who probably had a good deal more of it than she did. And as a waitress, of course, she could have been traded to another restaurant for a younger, more talented waitress like that.

Okay, that’s as far as I got, and obviously, my meager online research (up to three minutes at a time) has not been enough to glean true insight as to what may lie in store once tomorrow’s hearing gets underway. But let’s hope that the specter of a lost season will compel Judge Nelson to issue an injunction that will level the negotiating field between the players and owners and raise the hopes for an agreement before any games are missed—which would indeed cause “irreparable harm” (a legal term with real emotional punch) to the NFL’s 1,700 players and millions of fans.

Because whichever way she rules, the losing side is sure to appeal, and, according to my Googling, that would send the case to the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 8th District…in Denver.

And as all Chiefs fans know, good things rarely happen in Denver.